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Flower power
For someone who had never intended on becoming a florist, Kevin Ylvisaker has taken his career in the industry to the top level

By MARY LOU SANTOVEC

 

Everything’s coming up roses, daffodils and thousands of other flowers for Mukwonago floral designer Kevin Ylvisaker. And no matter what bloom, blossom, ornamental grass or seed pod he has to work with, the final arrangement is sure to leave the viewer breathless from the beauty.

Ylvisaker’s list of accomplishments shows he’s at the top of his game: designer and design captain for two presidential inaugural balls, judge of the Tournament of Roses Parade, guest floral designer on the PBS show, "At Home with Flowers." He’s been in the floral industry for more than 30 years, starting first as a retail florist and then adding wholesale florist, educator and freelance designer to his stellar resume.

"He’s an extremely talented person," says Marty Loppnow, vice president, Waukesha Floral and Greenhouse. "He’s an amazing ambassador for the floral industry."

For all of his successes, flowers were not Ylvisaker’s first interest. He attended Bethany College in Kansas, majoring in art and art education with an emphasis in sculpture. Later he transferred from Bethany to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and switched his artistic interest from sculpture to weaving.

It was during his time in Kansas that he took his first job in the floral industry as a delivery person for a local florist. One year, in addition to making deliveries, he was allowed to wire and tape corsages for Mother’s Day. Those experiences came in handy when he returned to Milwaukee, not far from Pewaukee where he grew up. "With only wire and taping experience, I was hired at a Milwaukee floral shop," he says. "I found I had a career going and my weaving was put on hold."

The local job offer led to an 18-year stint managing Baumgarten Krueger Floral and exposed Ylvisaker to various facets of the floral industry. Word of his creativity reached industry experts and Ylvisaker was invited to show off his work at wholesale design shows. That eventually led to a job with Denver Wholesale Florist selling product and creating displays.

It wasn’t long after that Ylvisaker joined the American Institute of Floral Designers, the largest certifying body in the world that recognizes floral design. This connection proved to be fortuitous. He was asked to work on the flowers for two presidential inaugurations — those of George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton. For the Bush Sr. inauguration, he was one of 100 designers and his work earned him a promotion to design team captain for Clinton’s first inauguration.

Ylvisaker recalls those experiences with some humor. "We were picked up at 3 or 4 in the morning from our (low-budget) motel and taken to an unheated warehouse where we put hundreds of centerpieces together," he says. "We couldn’t make one insertion that wasn’t approved by the committee. Twenty-four hours a day, flowers were going somewhere."

As with many life experiences, hindsight puts them in the best light. "They look good on paper, but they’re a lot of work," he says. "But it’s something I wouldn’t change," especially since he was able to attend one of the balls for Bush Sr.

Ylvisaker’s growing reputation within the industry earned him an appointment as a Tournament of Roses Parade judge. He was one of only three judges for the 1997 parade, coincidentally the year Wisconsin played in the Rose Bowl. "You really have to pay your dues to get up there," he admits. Ylvisaker says that people are only allowed to judge the parade one time. But that once-in-a-lifetime experience had an added bonus: seats on the 50-yard line at the Rose Bowl.

Television coverage of the parade doesn’t do justice to the floats’ grandeur. Behind the scenes, the floats are really an incredible exercise in the tiniest of details. The non-perishable seeds, beans and dried product are affixed to the structure ahead of time. Imagine using tweezers to apply the individual beans so that they all lie in the same direction. Three days before the parade, the flowers are inserted. "It’s like a beehive of designers putting flowers on at the last minute," says Ylvisaker. "It’s an amazing thing to be a part of."

For several years in the late 1980s, earning more frequent flyer miles than he’d care to admit, Ylvisaker was teaching and doing seminars across the world. He decided to return home and joined Badger Wholesale Florists in Milwaukee selling fresh flowers. While there, he became part of a national design team for Teleflora, the flower delivery company, teaching florists the latest designs. Smithers Oasis, the company that manufactures the ubiquitous green foam found stabilizing the majority of cut flower arrangements, also recruited him for their design team.

His industry reputation sealed, Ylvisaker left Badger Wholesale to form his own company, KLY Floral International, and become a freelance designer and educator. "My love really is in teaching," he admits, explaining the decision.

Like many freelancers, no two days are alike. One day will find Ylvisaker designing displays for an antique import furniture shop. The next will have him doing a public demonstration on the season’s hot new looks. "We’ve featured him at our spring and Christmas open houses," says Loppnow. "Kevin is such a natural for that. He has a good stage presence and can expound and talk and pull the audience in. His classes are always full at shows even if the designers have to pay to attend."

Michael Gaffney, owner of both the Milwaukee School of Flower Design and Tulipomania European Flower Market, holds Ylvisaker personally responsible for where he is today. "I blame everything on him," says Gaffney, tongue-in-cheek. "Every time I have seven weddings in a weekend, I know it was Kevin who got me into this."

Like Ylvisaker, Gaffney had no intentions of building a career around flowers. "We both have the same history of ‘Oops, here we are,’" he says. Gaffney, who started out as a truck driver with an interest in design, has progressed, thanks to Ylivsaker’s mentoring, to where he designs floral arrangements for some of the biggest names in the home accessory business, Lalique and Waterford Crystal to name just two. "Now I have two schools, a retail shop and I’m planning on opening up another shop in New York," says Gaffney. "He’s (Ylvisaker) a great, great talent in the industry."

Working with beautiful products can’t help but inspire a consistent flow of new ideas. But creativity is a well that needs to be constantly refilled. "Mother Earth is my inspiration for a lot of it," says Ylvisaker. He also reads sculpture and fiber arts magazines and relaxes in the backyard of his Mukwonago home, which boasts a sophisticated garden railroad layout.

Ylivasker and his partner, Jim Hunnicutt, built the Rocky Lights Railroad, a G-scale railroad with 900 feet of track, 50 buildings and over 500 plants. True to form, Ylvisaker does all of the gardening work and Hunnicutt does the woodwork. The railroad began on a rather small scale, just something to decorate their backyard deck. But never one to do things halfway, the duo decided to move the layout into the garden and expand it. "If we knew in our older age it was going to be harder to bend down, we would have brought in more dirt and made it higher," he says.

Asked to name his favorite flower, Ylvisaker hesitates. "I actually tend to enjoy more of a garden flower," he admits, "although they don’t last as long." But whatever the flower, it had better have fragrance. He also prefers to work with pink products and tends to eschew anything that’s blue. "Blue just calms me down a little too much," he explains.

Unlike many who retire after years in one industry, Ylvisaker will never have to worry about his legacy. He’s already left one.